The neighbourhood ice cream van was once a colourful and vibrant hallmark of typical suburban life in Australia.
Ever since ice cream vans came into being in the early 20th century, they have been alerting people to their wares by inimitably chiming ditties. Young fists clenched around loose change in anticipation. An assorted array of soft serve treats up for selection.
But are those days all but over?
Take a walk around any given suburb on the weekend, and there’s a sombre silence in the ‘burbs. You’re more than likely to find that you won’t hear the familiar sound of the ice cream van: that tinny tune echoing in the distance.
And while they’re still around, it seems the number of ice cream vans operating on local streets is less than a scoopful.
Have increasing red tape and council restrictions, supermarkets, fast food convenience and on-demand smartphone apps well and truly driven out the ice cream van for good?
An Australian-driven experience
In 1962, the first incarnation of the mobile ice cream van arrived in Australia with the Mr Whippy brand not shortly after its overwhelming success in the United Kingdom in 1959.
A fleet of more than 200 custom built Commer Karrier vans were shipped from Southhampton, first beginning operations in Sydney, and subsequently drove all around Australia.
The vans were outfitted with one of the most distinctive features of hot Australian summers of the 20th century: speakers and melodic chime boxes used to address their presence.
And while the Mr Whippy brand ceased mobile ice cream van operation in 1970, the name and tune continue to be synonymous with soft serve ice cream for reminiscing Australians.
For Innaloo resident and ice cream addict Connor Flick, and many others, getting a soft serve from the ice cream van was a ritual of growing up in Australia.
“It’s such a vivid memory: going up to your local van, along with the entire neighbourhood, and getting ice cream,” he said.
Sign of the chimes
The seductive call of the ice cream van jingle luring kids is unlike anything else. The operant conditioning all a part of the allure. Running around the street looking for the ice cream van. Involuntary behaviour reinforced through reward: a cone of frozen sugar for obeying the call. And the faster you could run to get there, the shorter the queue. The experience is incomparable.
The traditional tune Greensleeves is the jingle of choice used to attract customers in Australia. An aural signal to sugar-crazed kids, signalling the imminent arrival of the ice cream van on the block, with the promise of soft serve, a hunger reflected in their crazed eyes.
Although, for some kids, it may have just been the opposite…
For Perth parent Hugh Weaver, he had to convince his children the chime didn’t address the presence of the sweet sin.
“We use to tell our kids that they only played the music to let everyone know they were out of ice cream,” he said.
“It was smart back in the day, but if we knew the number of vans was declining, we probably would have let our kids indulge a little more.”
As a parent, did you dread the sound of Greensleeves? Were you hounded for loose change or the one doing the hounding?
But what was once considered a summer staple, the iconic soft serve ice cream van has become a noisy nuisance.
Using a repetitive jingle to associate a product with music is a well-known advertising tactic. The distinct chimes of the ice cream van used to be a welcome sound. Noise from ice cream vans is more commonly being seen as unwanted by residents who are still lucky enough to be able to indulge in an icy treat straight from the truck.
The tune has been under threat after complaints about it being played loudly on the weekends.
Submissions made by Mosman Park residents in 2016 indicated the chimes were too intrusive, calling into question the livelihoods of mobile ice cream van operators.
While the rules vary by local councils, Rockingham Mayor Barry Sammels said all mobile food vehicles have to abide by specific anti-noise pollution guidelines.
“There are some trading restrictions placed on mobile vendor licences, including the operator is not to cause a noise nuisance with amplified music,” he said.
Spare the sprinkles
Aside from anti-noise pollution driving out ice cream van operators, more regulation by local councils has pushed the industry close to a meltdown.
The City of Cockburn is planning to implement a new policy to reduce the number of sugary sweets food truck vendors can sell.
The policy facilitates a ‘traffic light’ system used at school canteens across the state, forcing vendors to provide healthy food at events. The system would require menus to consist of at least 40 per cent green options, containing healthy foodstuff, and no more than 30 per cent red options, including the sweet icy treat.
Sweets on the Run owner Craig Brown said he would lose a significant scoop of business by the policy.
“My ice cream van doesn’t have an option to change its menu,” he said.
“It’s hard enough as it is to operate in this current climate. We’re melting.”
WA Mobile Food Vendors Association president Craig Mauger has spoken against the policy.
“Councils shouldn’t be able to control what businesses should be serving and what people are eating,” he said.
Concerned Cockburn resident Rebecca Bowie said councils shouldn’t be targeting small businesses and treats sold at local events.
“People should be able to decide what they would like to eat and go to food trucks as a treat because the occasional treat is not the issue here,” she said.
“It’s discrimination to target these people’s businesses.”
Meanwhile, the Town of Victoria Park is set to ban mobile food vans in some areas due to competition with local businesses.
It’s a decision made to appease traditional brick and mortar store owners amidst a statewide business recession.
“Food truck vendors are not in competition with traditional stores,” Mr Mauger said.
“We have the convenience of being able to roll down the street, but it’s not the right decision to outright ban us.”
Food truck vendors face their own unique set of problems, but their appeal is an asset.
“Food trucks are revitalising the places they operate,” Mr Mauger said.
“Businesses that traditionally close early can stay open because of mobile vendors breathing new life into the area.”
Cone of convenience
For many, the ice cream van was a way to enjoy a sweet treat by convenience.
But these days, soft serve ice cream is more than likely available wherever you see a fast-food chain. And drive-thrus are only adding to the convenience. Now, every four-wheeled vehicle can be a purveyor of ice cream.
Mobile ice cream vans were also the only way to enjoy novelty ice cream items.
“There was: ‘Sherbet’, ‘Hundreds and Thousands’, and the iconic ‘Choc Top’, a personal favourite from my childhood,” Mr Flick said.
Did you find it a dilemma to have your soft serve choc-topped or not?
But many of these classic treats are now found in corner shops with more attractive prices.
Mr Brown said street vending has dramatically changed.
“Supermarkets are selling ice cream far more cheaply than ice cream vans can, and every corner shop has an ice cream freezer. All of this means fewer vans are doing the rounds today,” he said.
“There’s also the issue of people not carrying around loose change any more.
“Everyone is paying by card.
“We’ve had to accommodate to that too, which is an added expense.”
While the distinctive chimes of the ice cream van may be disappearing from our streets, not enough people are sending out their children to vote with their feet.
“Your average ice cream vendor is struggling. In the past, parents might not have blinked twice buying their kids ice cream, but now they’re thinking harder before sending them running around the block,” Mr Brown said.
Mr Weaver said it was unrealistic to expect parents to pay ice cream van prices when they don’t have to.
A single-serve ice cream cone costs around $5. And it’s an extra dollar for the iconic beloved flake.
“At a market or event, you have little choice, but taking my kids to the park and seeing an ice cream van, I’d rather take them to the supermarket because it’s far cheaper,” he said.
“I can’t justify spending almost $14 for two ice creams.”
Recent challenges have also come from the increasing popularity of online on-demand delivery services such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo.
Whether it is 10 a.m. or 11 p.m., any day of the week, people can now order an ice cream cone, or even a full pint, through these apps.
We are a society that revels in instant gratification. If we don’t have to wait for something, why should we? This includes the ice cream van.
The convenience and on-demand nature of these apps are fuelling this mentality.
People are more than willing to pay a premium price plus an added delivery fee if it means they don’t have to leave the comfort of their couch.
The tradition of waiting with bated breath, hoping the ice cream van will turn the corner as the jingle slowly grows louder, reverberating in the street, is gradually melting. These apps are systematically removing the memory of chasing down the ice cream van.
In areas not serviced by on-demand apps, ice cream vans still face their fair share of challenges. But for these areas, it’s still a matter of not if, but when.
Will mobile ice cream vans be able to thrive?
Variety over vanilla
It’s true. We might have well and indeed seen the demise of the ‘true’ ice cream van, where soft serve and icy treats were all that was on offer.
And while the disappearance of this simplicity may cause a pang of nostalgia for some, Swan Valley Ice Cream Wagon owner Ross Gundry said he’s had to figure a way to stand out from the crowd.
“A friend showed me an old photo of a horse-drawn ice cream van, and I thought that would be a brilliant idea,” he said.
Mr Gundry built his wagon from the four wheels up. He said outfitting the cart took him over seven months to complete. It was a way for him to combine two of his loves: ice cream and horses.
Mr Gundry said he’s been able to give back to the community by helping to keep alive the memory of ice cream vans.
“I wanted to bring a bit of the old world way of life back to the streets. Not just through horse-drawn carriages, but ice cream vendors,” he said.
Now it has become about continually innovating and changing the way his business operates and the goods they sell.
“We’ve tried to cater for Mum, Dad and the children in a fun and different way to help them enjoy the simple pleasures of life,” he said.
“We still have soft serve ice cream, choc dipped, the classic flake, sprinkles, nuts and shaved ice. But we’ve had to expand.”
Coffee, confectionery and other sweet treats are all on offer, with room for more.
But the days of street vending are melting fast.
“Being a mobile business, it’s hard work if the community doesn’t know where you’re going to be,” Mr Gundry said.
While social media is a useful tool, it’s not enough to sustain traditional ways.
Ice cream van vendors are finding new life by hiring themselves out to attend markets, festivals and local community events.
Mr Gundry said he’s operated at birthday parties, school fetes, corporate events and the odd wedding now and then.
“We’re always open to doing other things as well. It’s about being constantly available for any opportunities that come your way,” he said.
“We just can’t afford the luxury of not giving everything a try.”
Nostalgia’s a road trip
These days nostalgia is an essential trend in the mobile food vendor industry, and for Bobby J’s, it’s a crucial part of their brand.
Owners of the retro ice cream caravan Paul Brown and Maxine Merchant said they decided to drive home the essence of the ice cream van, but needed a way to stay current.
“We opted not to look like your traditional ice cream van. We felt we needed to stay relevant through social media, so we put our spin on it. It’s not the ice age anymore,” Mr Brown said.
But will nostalgia alone be enough to provide a secure future for mobile ice cream vendors on our streets?
Mr Brown is optimistic.
“I do think there is a future for mobile ice cream vans,” he said.
“Even if you haven’t heard the ice cream van jingle for decades, there’s no doubt hearing that same tune will trigger memories.”
He said this is where direct contact with the community is vital.
“As long as the communities we serve are willing to support us; we will continue to have a place in their lives.”
When was the last time you bought a soft serve ice cream?
Have we seen the last of hordes of children, driven wild by sweet aural promise, darting across the hot bitumen to meet the purveyor of their sugary vice? Ice cream dripping down their hands as they walk away.
It’s a race to savour every last lick.
And this rings true for ice cream van operators, as they face an uncertain future, hoping to stay frozen in time.